MPs enlarge their horizons

Observations on freebies

The Danes took over the presidency of the EU on 1 July, promising that enlargement to bring in the countries of southern and eastern Europe will be top of their agenda. British MPs are rubbing their hands with glee.

Our honourable members have decided to allow themselves a threefold increase in visits to European capitals. It's part of a Foreign Office plan to get our under-employed parliamentarians together with their EU counterparts, including those countries that have applied to join.

So, while trips to Bucharest and Sofia might not be everyone's idea of a jolly, Prague and Budapest will more than compensate. There is also the prospect of two nights in Cyprus, visiting its parliament in Nicosia, which happens to be not too far from the beach.

It has been done in inimitable parliamentary style - quietly - stitched up by all the political parties in a rare example of consensus. Before 1999, MPs were entitled to one free trip a year to Brussels, Luxembourg or Strasbourg. However, take-up to these locations was limited. (I wonder why.) So, in the interests of furthering European integration, it was decreed that this should be extended to include any EU capital, including Madrid, Rome or Paris.

Under the latest changes, MPs will get three trips (business class, naturally), which will also take in any of the 13 "candidate" nations. The estimated extra cost is £225,000 per year.

On 9 May, at precisely 8.35pm, the changes went through "on the nod", government and opposition whips passing them without a debate or vote. According to Hansard, the motion "Travel by honourable members to national parliaments and European Union institutions" was sandwiched between a resolution entitled "Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee)" and an adjournment debate on the closure of Knutsford Crown Court.

Even Today in Parliament, that last bastion of parliamentary reporting on the BBC, failed to notice it, perhaps because it was on the same day as Stephen Byers's "I didn't lie" statement to the Commons on the Martin Sixsmith affair and a Budget debate. I was also living in ignorance, until I came across a ten-week-old newspaper cutting. Inquiries to the Commons authorities drew a series of blanks. One official said he believed the issue had been "put into a siding", as the Speaker, Michael Martin, had a "few queries" about it. The embarrassed official then called back to confirm that, actually, a parliamentary order had been passed - two months ago.

In their defence, MPs argue that the motion had been on the Commons order paper (denoting business) ahead of time. They also point out that it imposes tight rules. Journeys are reimbursed only to and from London. Subsistence is restricted to "two nights at the civil service Class A standard rate". And MPs must submit in advance "a statement of the visit's purpose, location and duration and the persons and organisations to be met".

Given MPs' probity on such matters - voting themselves an extension of pension rights when most people's are being cut back, employing their spouses while claiming full secretarial allowances, etc - all doubts have naturally been allayed.